Traditional Turkmen women’s garments are real pieces of art. Dresses, overcoats and scarves are made form fine material, woven on simple horizontal looms, and decorated with intricate embroidery, unique in the Central Asian region. Next to being decorative, these embroideries, particularly those at the edges of a garment, were also functioning as an amulet that would deter evil spirits.
The art of sowing embroidered head coverings (kurte or chirpe), dresses (koynek), single-piece robes (don) and scarves has remained unchanged over centuries. These garments are plain in shape, and well adapted to the local living and climatic conditions. The dresses and overcoats were mostly made from narrow pieces of silk material called ketene, in red, green or purple color, whereas for some of the single-piece overcoats cotton material was also used.
Chirpe head coverings were worn by women on special occasions. The decorative embroidery covered the whole garment, and reflected stylized shapes of animals, household items, but mostly flowers (lotus, tulip). Kurte head coverings – though similar in shape and purpose – were decorated less densely than the chirpe.
The shape of the ceremonial dress called ketene koynek – also made from ketene material – stresses the yellow lining of this material. The lining in turn – running all the way from top to bottom of the dress in the front, back, both sides and over the arms, stresses the overall shape of the dress.
Besides a dress, robe and head covering women wore a cover for the lower part of their face. This garment is called gynach. They are sown from silk material and triangular in shape. Two sides are richly decorated with embroidery and brushes.
A less formal, yet extremely popular piece of clothing that was and still is worn at home by virtually everyone, and in public by nearly all women in the cold period of the year are jorabi and cheshki. These respectively longer or ankle sized knitted socks are made from sheep wool, camel hair or synthetic thread, and are intricately decorated on all sides.
Young girls and boys and teenagers, up to the time they marry, frequently wear an embroidered head cover called tahiya during formal functions, including when attending school or university.
Traditional Turkmen men’s robes, also called don, are made from cotton material with plain decorative edges. The don ichmek is a heavy winter version, made from sheep’s skin, polished/treated with pomegranate skin.
Men’s hats, telpek, come in many designs. The most striking is the silkme telpek, made from long sheep hair, and providing perfect protection to the head from heat and cold alike.
Fine collections of antique garments can be seen on display at several museums in Turkmenistan. But also at a wedding photo shoot next to popular monuments, in the streets and at the bazaars in the southern parts of Turkmenistan we can see ordinary people wearing these garments.
Traditional Turkmen jewelry is, just as the embroidered garments, very peculiar and unique for Turkmens only. And just as the garments, we can identify different styles and designs used by different Turkmen tribes. The ornaments are in general fairly massive; silver foundations were often gilded with gold top coatings, and with inlays of turquoise (Yomut) or Cornelian (Teke).
The craft of making jewelry has been practiced by Turkmen artisans since many centuries ago. Today we find samples of this jewelry dating from no earlier than the beginning of the 19th century. This can be explained by the fact that jewelers used old jewelry to make new creations, and therefore melted down old jewelry. Systematic collection of rare samples was begun in the late 1930s.
A wide variety of decorations are worn by women on the occasion of special celebrations. These pieces of jewelry are very large in size and more densely decorated with precious stones and engraved designs than the daily pieces of jewelry. A special set comes as bridal decorations, and a particular set is also made for children. All these have the combined functions as decoration as well as protective amulet.
Jewelry art includes not only personal decoration, but also other items made from precious metal and other metals, such as horse harnesses, knife handles, swords and whips. Personal decorations come in dozens of shapes and have each their own function. Here is just a short list to give you an idea of the wealth of Turkmen jewelry:
Next to jewelry that fulfills mainly an esthetical function, there are also decorations that are purely fulfilling the function of protection against the evil eye. Some are worn, and some are sown into or onto clothing. Some are solid, and some have a hollow part inside, that leaves space from something to keep evil spirits at a distance (such as Koran texts, salt or coal).
Various museums and several private collections in Turkmenistan have an impressive array of antique jewelry on display. Of course, you can also find Turkmen jewelry at Sunday bazaars. Without doubt the best occasion to watch the abundance of jewelry is when observing a Turkmen wedding ritual or photo shoot.
For Turkmen people carpets are not only a symbol of beauty and happiness, but also tell the story of their forefathers; carpets tell Turkmen history. For centuries, travelers through Turkmenistan document about the quality of the carpets woven here.
Although carpets were already being produced in the time of the Seljuks, the first written reference to Turkmen carpets was made by Marco Polo (XIII c). In the XIV c Ibn Batutta also writes about woolen carpets in homes of inhabitants of (Kunya) Urgench, and of silk carpets in the palace of Kutlug-Timur there. We can also find Turkmen carpets back in the paintings of the masters of the Italian Renaissance (XIV-XV cc), and (probably) in the miniatures of Timurid times such as the Shah-name (XV c).